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Walter Benjamin

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Space, Crime, and Architecture

Space Crime and Architecture

The most recent issue of Plat, an independent architectural journal published by students at Rice School of Architecture, features an essay I wrote with two of my fellow M.E.D. classmates. “Space, Crime, and Architecture” elaborates on some of the issues we discussed in our 2011 Yale School of Architecture research colloquium of the same name. It’s also a deeper, more academic exploration of my own personal interests in the relationship between architecture and crime – particularly the notion of crime as a critical tool or transgressive criticism. Plat 2.0: If You See Something Say Something investigates the gap “between architectural representation and the buildings it produces.” Here’s a brief excerpt from “Space, Crime, and Architecture,” slightly edited and sans footnotes:

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Space, Crime & Architecture is an ongoing investigation of the failure of architecture when confronted with a criminal act. This failure is not that of an unrealized utopic ambition, but rather that of an apparatus unable to account for potential failure with the same precision it represents presumed success. The intent of this project is to theorize the conceptual dissonance between the criminal violation of a space and the intended use of a space as programmed by the architect.

The primary representation of crime typically comes from newspapers and other news media outlets. Such representations are necessarily rudimentary, and oftentimes manipulative. While the newspaper is, by its nature, obliged to convey information, it is also beholden to its readership: as a popular media outlet, it is equally obliged to be “popular.” As a shared source of information, the news media plays a central role in the construction of a culture’s perception of reality. As crime reports became nearly ubiquitous in the newspapers of the modern metropolis, fictional narratives depicting crime not only became a popular phenomenon, they contributed to the formation of both a taxonomy and a geography of criminal space. Following from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the flâneur, the crowd, and the metropolis, one can attribute the popularity of the detective story in the nineteenth century to the era’s social concerns and the anxiety of the bourgeoisie who, through newspaper stories and detective fiction, could experience the dangers of the city from the ostensible safety and comfort of their elaborately decorated interiors. In fact, it was the traces left by the criminal violation of the bourgeois interior that first made it necessary to invoke the detective in such novels. While crime fiction and true-crime narratives continued as a popular form of entertainment through the twentieth century, they have once again come to dominate the cultural zeitgeist. Television series like CSI, with its myriad spinoffs and imitators, present elaborate crime scenes and extravagant, high-tech investigations. Perhaps the current popularity of the genre can be explained by a new anxiety underlying life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In recounting criminal acts, the media not only constructs a cognitive map of places associated with crime, it exploits the collective consciousness to sensationalize the transgression of convention. The fictionalization of crime trains the public to identify crime as a moment of disruption, a discontinuity in the social order. Crime is both confronted by and pursued from its physical traces. And yet, despite these remains – which can be measured, documented, and reconstructed – the relationship between crime and norm is not strictly empirical. If crime and norm are two distinct notions, it follows that any value judgment of material evidence will rely on our understanding of the relationship between crime and norm. This prompts a surprisingly simple question: how can crime change the way we think of architecture? In this regard, there are two distinct, if not opposing, hypotheses from which our investigation begins.

1. The criminal act introduces a completely foreign element into an otherwise stable program; it employs logics or tools that differ substantially from the norm.

2. Crime is an organic function within the norm; it is a latent quality manifested by a catalyst (the criminal) that deploys logics or tools compatible with the norm.

The distinction is important because the relationship between crime and norm influences not only its social meaning, it also raises the architectural issue of programmatic/technical/spatial determinism. Writing about the culmination of this determinism as an assumption of architecture in modernity, Theo Van Doesburg anticipated the current trend of algorithmic design in 1924 when he described the potential for architecture to become merely the sum of a precise mathematics:

In architecture’s next phase of development the ground-plan must disappear completely. The two-dimensional spatial composition “fixed” in a ground-plan will be replaced by an exact “constructional calculation” – a calculation by means of which the supporting capacity is restricted to the simplest but strongest supporting points. For this purpose Euclidean mathematics will be of no further use – but with the aid of calculation that is non-Euclidean and takes into account the four dimensions everything will be very easy.

This investigation questions the social relations assumed by the production of architecture, and consequently whether architects are victims of the criminal act or accomplices to the crime. Is crime a complete deviation from the ideal “constructional calculation,” understood as both a programmatic strategy and as an architectural form, or an inherent variable in this calculation?

In the first of the above hypotheses, crime is understood as external to the established norm. As an unanticipated transgression of boundaries – legal, spatial, social – crime reveals the weakness of the implicit formal and programmatic optimism in any “plan” by subverting the conventional readings of the designed environment. When such conditions are made manifest, architecture becomes a crime scene.

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To read the rest, check out Plat 2.0.

Life Without Buildings

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Zoniers, Porte de Choisy, 1913By Stephen Longmire, Afterimage, May 2001It has been 20 years, amazingly enough, since New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launched its landmark cycle of exhibitions of the work of French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927), who spent his last 30 years documenting the architectural record of Paris and its surroundings at the beginning of the last century.

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Foto: Erwin Wurm: Untitled, 2007 / Wear Me Out @ Middelheim Museum. Via

* Der neue Politcomic von Zampa Di Leone: “Dutch Cuts“. Via: Mail

* Street Art mittels Crowdfunding? Leon Reid IV bittet um Spenden für seine “Tourist-In-Chief”-Installation

* Guter Artikel über “Street-Art-Jäger”: Banksy und die Rattenfänger. Via: Mail, danke Lorri!

* Pfandgeben: “Wir geben Dir die Handynummern von Pfandsammlern in deinem Bezirk und Du rufst einfach einen an.” Via

* R.I.P.: Cy Twombly

* Aktion in Österreich: Hier kommt die Bildungsmilliarde! Via: Mail, thx!

* Streetart goes Sexstyle: Boris Hoppek hat einen Dildo gestaltet. Via

* Stadtplanung & Urban Activism: “Commons is a civic game and iPhone app which aims to help new Yorkers “compete to do good” while helping to improve New York City. Equipped with an iPhone + the Commons app, players are challenged to identify problems in urban space and suggest ways to improve them. Players can vote for each other’s ideas and the most popular one wins the game.” Via

* Die Stadt, das Kino und die Moderne: Benjamin BardousParis, Hauptstadt des 19. Jahrhunderts“. “I made an essay/experimental film inspired by the Passagen-Werk by Walter Benjamin.” Via: Mail, merci!

* “Captcha”-Erzählung von Gabrielle De Vietri. Via

* Mit welchem/r Politiker/Politikerin würden Sie lieber punkt-punkt-punkt? Sexy Bundestag!

* International Random Film Festival: “IRFF is a travelling film festival that decides its venue via wikipedias “Random Article” function. All entries are allowed, the official selection is chosen by a special random selection method”. Via: Linktipp, thx Synes!

* Und es hat Booooooom gemacht: “ARTBOMB is a peaceful art intervention initiated in The Netherlands. The Dutch Government is about to cut 40% of all cultural funding. This will result in the disappearance of a multitude of organizations that excel internationally in their field. This loss will be felt not only by the Dutch public but by the international community. One signal, one moment, one act to show support. You can contribute visual ammunition against the disproportionate cuts to the arts budget. This visible intervention will rise up around the world where people value the arts and want to express their support for artists and cultural organizations.” Via

* Kunstwerke im AppFormat: der AppArtAward des ZKM

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David sez, "Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, reads the last paragraph of 'A Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research
Materials' by Robert C. Binkley,
a 1936 book on preserving the media types of the day, which is oddly prescient."

The present generation should not be surprised at the conclusion of a
technological revolution that has as its seed [sic] of a cultural
revolution. Such may indeed be true in this instance. The cultural
revival of the monopoly of the metropolis and the democratization and
deprofessionalization of scholarship are on the horizon which seems to
lie ahead. And these things themselves accord with other elements of
our social and economic prospects, notably the possible decline in the
centralization of population in cities and the development of a new
leisure in the hands of a well-educated people. The same technical
innovations that promise to give aid to the research worker in his
cubicle may also lead the whole population toward participation in a
new cultural design.

Brewster Kahle reads from a prescient book

(Thanks, David Weinberger!)

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